XFiles Friday: What did Isaiah know and when did he know it?April 24, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)
Twelve chapters down, and only three more to go. After all the repetition of the last few chapters, ending with the feeble protest that extraordinary evidence shouldn’t be necessary for Christians’ extraordinary claims, Geisler and Turek are ready to assume that they’ve proven their case so far, and to settle comfortably into more routine and familiar evangelical apologetics.
Chapter 13 sets out to prove that Messianic prophecies prove that Jesus is the Christ, so after a brief introduction, they take us to UCLA in the 1960’s.
Of course, no Messianic prophecy was ever issued or fulfilled on the 60’s-era campus of UCLA. But Geisler and Turek want to draw us in with a human interest story about a Jewish sports hero who converted to Christianity. As we’ve been discussing this week, people are Christian’s primary source of information about God, so it makes sense strategically for Geisler and Turek to present their case in terms of a celebrity endorsement. In seven and a half pages, they get as far as making 15 claims about Isaiah 53. They don’t really defend any of those claims, they just present them, and then go on at some length about how convincing they must be, and how convinced their Jewish celebrity was by them.
Let’s go ahead and do the work that Geisler and Turek left undone, shall we?
According to G&T, there are 15 aspects of Isaiah 42 through 53 that make it a specific and unmistakable prediction of Jesus ministry, including his death and resurrection. Thus, we know right off the bat that they’re distorting the truth, since the disciples could hardly have been surprised at Jesus’ death if the Old Testament had been predicting clearly and unmistakably that Messiah would die and then rise again.
So let’s have a look at the claims and see for ourselves what they really tell us:
1. He is elected by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and promised success in his endeavor.
What does it take to be elected by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and promised success? Well, since God does not show up in real life, we pretty much have to just take people’s word for it. Considering that Jesus died young and left his disciples to do all the real work, the standard for “success” is set low enough that it could easily be met by Joseph Smith, Benny Hinn, George W. Bush, Alexander the Great, Benjamin Franklin, etc. In fact, it might be hard to find someone who would have conclusively failed to match this prediction in some sense, should you have a mind to attribute some kind of divine election and anointing to them.
2. Justice is a prime concern of his ministry
If you search for “justice” in the Gospels (how Freudian is that?), you will find that 2 Gospels mention Jesus condemning the Pharisees for neglecting justice and love, and 1 Gospel promising that the Father would bring justice to His children, presumably at the last judgment. When asked to judge between a man and his brother, Jesus declined to judge (and thus to dispense justice). And that’s pretty much it for his ministry’s “prime concern” for justice. He had a bit more to say and to do regarding mercy, and quite a bit more to say about God as a loving Father, and about humility, and about serving others. But justice? Not so much. In fact, he is rather more famous for instructing his followers to put up with injustice, and even “turn the other cheek.”
What Geisler and Turek are relying on here is the Christian assumption that anything good must be true of Jesus. It doesn’t matter that Jesus did not make justice the prime concern of his ministry, or accomplish any significant legal liberation for the oppressed peoples of his day. All that matters is that justice is a virtue, and therefore it must be true of Jesus’ ministry in some significant way, and therefore any Old Testament reference to someone pursuing justice must be a prediction of Jesus.
3. His ministry has an international scope
By “international scope,” Helyer means that Isaiah 42:1 mentions bringing justice to the nations, and verse 6 mentions being a light to the Gentiles. Jesus, by contrast, declared that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Again, what we have here is Helyer capitalizing on the Christian tendency to attribute virtuous things to Jesus (even though his ministry did not achieve the kind of “international scope” Helyer claims for him), and thus to claim that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy, through the attributions of believers.
4. God predestined him to his calling
Yet another “fulfillment” that consists solely of believers attributing things to Jesus….
5. He is a gifted teacher
The actual verse Helyer cites, Isaiah 49:2, says, “He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.” One wonders what sort of school Helyer graduated from, if that’s how he sees “gifted teachers.” Personally, I think it sounds more like a prediction of the coming of Christopher Hitchens.
6. He experiences discouragement in his ministry.
…and of course, only the Messiah is ever discouraged in his work.
7. His ministry extends to the Gentiles
And again, the ministry of Jesus specifically did not, as he said himself. Another “fulfillment” manufactured out of the things Christians attributed to Jesus after his death.
8. The Servant encounters strong opposition and resistance to his teaching, even of a physically violent nature.
This is a good example of what I mean by “retroactive interpretation.” Have a look at Isaiah 50:4-6, the passage that Helyer cites as the basis for this claim:
The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
In the original passage, no mention is made of anyone being opposed to the teaching. There is violence and opposition, to be sure, but the cause is not mentioned in the text itself. This is a bit of interpretation on Helyer’s part, a subtle self-cameo: it’s not just Jesus who is opposed, it’s those (like Helyer) who carry on his teaching. Or so the prophecy is reinterpreted to mean.
Again, this is a fairly trivial prophecy, since mockings and beatings and various similar forms of abuse were just not that uncommon (and even today are not as rare as they ought to be).
9. He is determined to finish what God called him to do.
This one combines both trivial fulfillment and fulfillment by attribution.
10. The Servant has humble origins with little outward prospects for success.
A reference to Isaiah 53:1-2, “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Note the vague, poetic language—the description could be applied to almost anyone who was not beautiful. It says nothing about his station in life, or his wealth, or his political power. It says only that he was not beautiful or majestic in appearance. Once again, Helyer is subtly shaping and framing the language of the prophecy in order to bias us in favor of connecting it with Jesus.
11. He experiences suffering and affliction.
Déjà vu. Maybe he’s repeating it because the Messiah is the only person who ever experienced suffering and affliction, and he wants to draw our attention to that unique qualification?
So far the claims have been pretty lightweight stuff: vague remarks that are either trivial to fulfill, or that are “fulfilled” by the simple expedient of having believers attribute things to Jesus whether he had any literal and demonstrable connection with them or not. But starting with claim number 12, things get a bit better, and I’ve got a lot to say about them. Tune in again next time.